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Seven months later, Cuomo administration divulges details about his COVID-19 book deal

Seven months later, Cuomo administration divulges details about his COVID-19 book deal

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Virus Outbreak Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference at his offices in New York on March 24. 

ALBANY — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo was given permission by a state ethics agency in July to write a book about his handling of state government during the first wave of COVID-19, as long as the subject matter of the book was “unrelated to the governor’s duties” in office, according to state documents released Wednesday night.

The Buffalo News, in a Freedom of Information Law request last August, requested documents pertaining to Cuomo’s book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” later published in the fall.

The document release came as the New York Times the same evening reported that Cuomo received a high offer for his book deal last year of more than $4 million. Previous media reports said Cuomo received a multi-million dollar arrangement for his book and various sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, over the weeks have said the final book deal topped $5 million.

The Times reported Cuomo used top aides and junior staffers for help on his book project; a state ethics agency specifically, according to the documents provided to the Buffalo News, specifically told Cuomo he could not use state “personnel” or property “for activities associated with the book.”

The documents, released after multiple delays by Cuomo’s office over the months, did not shine specific light on how much the governor was paid or is due in royalties for the book deal.

Crown Publishing recently said it was halting promotion of Cuomo’s book, which saw sharply declining sales after scandals began engulfing the governor, because of an investigation launched by federal prosecutors and the FBI over COVID-19 nursing home death issues, including underreporting by the Cuomo administration of how many nursing home patients died from COVID-19 after being transferred to hospitals.

On July 17, a special counsel to Cuomo, Judith Mogul, requested permission from the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics for Cuomo to write the book.

In that request, she said Cuomo was seeking to write a book “in the very near future” that she called “a continuation” of a previous memoir he wrote. That 2014 book, “All Things Popular,” made Cuomo $783,000, despite lackluster sales and no promotion work on Cuomo’s part to boost sales.

Mogul told the ethics agency in July that the upcoming book would be a “memoir based on his professional and personal life” since the previous book. The 2020 book focused on Cuomo touting his leadership abilities after COVID-19 spread in the first wave through New York; New York has since seen dramatic COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths from 2020 into last year into the beginning of this year. There have also been new increases in recent weeks.

The Cuomo handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes is the subject of not only a federal investigation, but also an Assembly Judiciary Committee impeachment probe.

Mogul in July told the ethics agency that Cuomo had not yet selected a publisher, but that the ones he was considering posed no conflicts of interest to his job. The ethics agency, called JCOPE, last year declined to provide documents on the Cuomo book deal, but referred reporters to Cuomo’s office, which, if desired, could make them public.

Mogul then spread her reasoning for approval of the outside income deal for Cuomo as justified based on JCOPE precedents, including its OK of the 2014 book deal. She said he would write the 2020 book on his own time and not use any state personnel or resources for the project. She said two publishers were under consideration at the time and that neither had any state contracts and neither had been lobbying the state.

She sought an expedited review – “in view of the pending transaction” – from the agency, which has Cuomo appointees on its board and loyalists of the governor on its staff.

It was expedited. Just 7 days later, Martin Levine, deputy general counsel at JCOPE, responded to Mogul, saying the book project was OK.

The third of nine requirements for Cuomo was repeated from the 2012 book approval: “The subject matter must be sufficiently unrelated to the governor’s official activities so that authorship or the advice or material provided in the book cannot be viewed as part of the governor’s job.”

The request did not get approved by JCOPE’s board, whose members today, according to an Albany Times Union report this week, still can’t get their own details on the ethics request by the governor. Instead, the book deal request was approved by JCOPE’s staff. The 2012 book deal was approved by the top staffer at JCOPE, who was a longtime Cuomo aide.

In the July 17, 2020, approval, Levine wrote that neither the proposed publisher, Penguin Random House, nor its Crown Publishing imprint, have a conflict of interest with Cuomo and the state government he oversees. It said the JCOPE staff was relying on “the accuracy and completeness of the information you have provided” to the agency about the looming 2020 book deal.

Levine said it appeared that the nine-point criteria required by JCOPE for the Cuomo book deal had been met.

“Please note that the governor may not promote the book while performing his official duties, and any appearances or activities to promote the book must clearly be separate and apart from the governor’s official duties,” he said.

Cuomo promoted the book on national TV interviews last year, at the same time he was giving updates on the COVID-19 situation in New York and criticizing then-President Trump for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

The July 10 request from Cuomo’s special counsel came the same day he told an Albany public radio station that he was thinking about “what we went through” with COVID-19 and the “lessons learned.”

Five weeks later, the book deal with Crown was announced.

Some level of information about the financial terms of the book deal should be revealed when the governor, like other certain state workers, must file his annual financial disclosure form. It will only make public information about outside income he earned in 2020.

The Buffalo News on Aug. 21 requested records about his book deal. The administration blamed COVID-19, and the fact that many Cuomo members were working from home, on delays in being able to find the documents being requested.

The 6 p.m. Wednesday release of documents asked for last summer came a little more than 90 minutes before the Times posted its story about Cuomo’s lucrative book deal.

Some members of Assembly Judiciary Committee want a new impeachment investigation of Cuomo – involving, among other things, sexual harassment allegations made against Cuomo and the nursing home matters – to also include a probe of his 2020 book deal.

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